The other day The Week ran a piece on the Mann vs Steyn case headlined "Is National Review Doomed?" It was by Damon Linker, a name I confess I did not recognize, although it turns out that in 2006 I panned his book The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege in a round-up of "tomes about the imminent Christianist takeover of America":
Damon Linker's book is the funniest, albeit unintentionally. "Theocons" are like neocons, only not Jewish but sinister Catholics with a well-advanced plan to conscript American conservatism for a political project that will transform the nation beyond recognition. They were the ones who spotted George W. Bush as the perfect stooge for their Christianist coup and then surrounded him with Jews to confuse the media. Oh, sure, go ahead, laugh. But it's hard not to warm to an author who describes the United States as "the world's God-intoxicated hegemon" with such implacable plonking earnestness.
Alas, other than that, Linker's book is a rather lame attempt at score-settling. A few years ago, he used to work at Richard John Neuhaus's magazine First Things. Somewhere along the way, he and Father Neuhaus fell out, Linker drifted left, and decided that his old boss was waging a "stealth campaign" to inflict upon the U.S. "a future in which American politics and culture have been systematically purged of secularism," and in which the constitution will be rewritten to bring it into line with "the moral and sexual world view of the Vatican." That's quite the ambition. American religiosity is for the most part strikingly un-Roman, and Father Neuhaus himself finds the evangelicals a bit of a bore, what with their "forced happiness and joy" and "awful music." But so far the conspiracy seems to be going swimmingly, with the Supreme Court claiming to have discovered a constitutional right to sodomy, and its fellow jurists in Massachusetts having legalized gay marriage. That's exactly the kind of cunning distraction you'd expect these theocons to come up with to throw the rest of us off the scent.
Mr Linker bided his time and then seven years later launched another "rather lame attempt at score-settling", informing his readers that I would be singlehandedly responsible for bringing to an end National Review's six-decade reign as the champ of American conservative magazines. The cost of either losing or settling the Michael Mann lawsuit will apparently be the first, final and only nail in NR's coffin:
It's doubtful that National Review could survive either outcome. Small magazines often lose money and only rarely manage to break even. They certainly don't have substantial legal budgets, let alone cash to cover an expensive payout. Indeed, in 2005, Buckley said the magazine had lost $25 million over 50 years.
A few days later, in The Washington Post, Eugene Volokh pointed out the obvious flaw in this theory:
Both fear (for those who want to see the National Review thrive) and hope (for those who want to see it fold) are premature, and for reasons that have nothing to do with the merits of Mann's case or with big-picture First Amendment issues. Rather, the reason, which the article in The Week doesn't discuss, is libel insurance.
Which NR has, as does every other mainstream publication in the Republic of the Litigious. Including The Week, I'll bet.
But by now the Leftosphere's herd of independent minds had instantly seized on Linker's cheery cry of "Venerable Conservative Institution To Fold! Get Your Souvenir Final Issue Now!" I believe Salon Pajama Boy Elias Isquith was the first to pick it up, heartily endorsing Linker's thesis until NR publisher Jack Fowler phoned him and Mr Ithsquish extensively walked his piece back, belatedly explaining he was merely the re-typist of the Week piece. Politico didn't even bother coming up with their own headline but simply lifted Linker's: "Is National Review Doomed?" The Raw Story rewrote it as "Climate Scientist's Lawsuit Could Wipe Out Conservative National Review Magazine". The National Memo opted for "National Review Is In Deep Trouble".
Aware that there's something slightly weird about people at least nominally committed to a free press cheering a magazine getting sued out of existence, many of these writers and many of those in their comments section took refuge in a handy meme: William F Buckley Jr's National Review had been urbane, thoughtful, civilized, intelligent; but post-Buckley it had fallen into the hands of "loons like Mark Steyn". As Damon Linker put it:
National Review once devoted itself to raising the tone of conservative intellectual discourse. As part of this civilizing mission, its founding editor summarily excommunicated the paranoid cranks of the John Birch Society from the conservative movement. He also spent 33 years hosting an erudite talk show in which leading intellectuals and public figures from all points on the political spectrum debated important issues of the day.
The ideological descendants of the Birchers have since taken their revenge. Today they are the conservative movement's most passionate supporters and foot soldiers. But they demand a steady diet of red meat, and National Review now exists in part to provide it.
Hence the career and reckless writings of Mark Steyn, a man of considerable polemical talent who specializes in whipping right-wing readers into a froth of know-nothing indignation.
That's quite a claim from a guy who wrote a book warning that America was being "systematically purged of secularism" under a constitution rewritten by the Vatican. Just for the record, I wound up writing for National Review only because Bill Buckley (and his wife Pat even more so) loved my writing and talked it up all over town at a time when no one in America had read a word by me. And in 2005, in elegaic mode and looking back, he still dug me:
In his speech at the National Review 50th-anniversary gala, he did me the great honor of reading out a passage of mine from the birthday issue that happened to have tickled his fancy. I am a considerably less elegant writer and listening to Bill reading my rough-and-tumble prose in his languid vowels was a bit like hearing Maria Callas sing "Yes, We Have No Bananas."
It was. The paragraph included a reference to the popular American posterior-seating apparatus known as a "Barcalounger", but Bill pronounced it "BarcelongĂ©", like a French expression for a relaxed long weekend in Spain. Nevertheless, I was the only writer he quoted on that gala anniversary night, which suggests that, for all the competing charms of Damon Linker's "handful of book reviews" for NR, in 2005 Bill didn't regard me as a disfigurement to his pages.
And then he died. It's no secret that Bill's successors at National Review and I have some differences at the moment. But you can swallow the Linker hooey that Buckley would have deplored the way his legacy had fallen into the hands of "know-nothings" and "loons", or you can read what I wrote, very presciently in light of this week's nonsense, a few days after Bill's death:
I'm sure even now some New York Times type is tutting that Buckley's movement has fallen into the hands of vulgar bullies like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter who lack his dash and Ă©lan. As it happens, back in 2000 some fellow in the San Francisco Chronicle made exactly that point about a lout called Steyn disfiguring Buckley's National Review. But, in reality, Bill was, as he would say, the fons et origo of a conservatism that came out swinging â€” sometimes literally, as in a famous TV encounter of 1968. "As far as I am concerned," drawled Gore Vidal, "the only crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself." "Now listen, you queer," replied Buckley. "Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi, or I'll sock you in your goddamn face and you'll stay plastered." Indeed. And, if "You Nazi!"/"You queer!" isn't exactly up there with Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward in the devastating repartee rankings, well, Vidal started it, and Bill's epithet, unlike Gore's, at least has the merit of being true. The idea that William F. Buckley represents a civilized conservatism lost to uncouth savages will no doubt become received wisdom in the same way that, upon his death, Ronald Reagan's success was universally ascribed by the media to an avuncular geniality wholly alien to the vengeful knuckledraggers of the Bush era.
And so it has proved.
Bill Buckley would have fought this present battle with "dash and Ă©lan" but also with a fierce fighting spirit. And so will I. And that's not going to close down National Review, but will do it a power of good.
(If you'll forgive a vulgarly unBuckleyesque pitch, you can help win that battle. See here.)